A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Get Outta Here - Parshat Lech Lecha

I cannot make the blog accept "return" commands...so there are no paragraph breaks. This renders the text graphically unreadable (it may be textually so, but that's for you to decide). Good luck.... This week's parshah [torah portion] is one of the most over-analyzed yet oversimplified parshiyot in the entire Torah. Seriously, can it really just be about God saying to Avram [soon to be Avraham], "Hey, get outta here. Make your own place in the world."? What is this, some cheap airport novel? I don't know where that grumpiness came from, but I want to share some deep Torah from the slonimer rebbe (thanks, Rabbi Marc, for turning me on to the rebbe's work Netivot Shalom, the work that inspired the thoughts here]. The Slonimer Rebbe begins with the question, 'Why is the command to Avram written in this particular order: Lech l'cha [Go out] mei'artzecha [from your land], umimoladatecha [and your place of birth] umibeit avicha [and from your fathers household] el ha-aretz asher arecha [to the land that I will show you] (Genesis 12:1). If God were just giving geographical instructions, the order would be reversed - the father's house being the first thing Abvram would leave behind in departing, then the 'place of birth' (presumably the Slonimer thinks this means 'town' or the equivelant, and then 'the land.' But the instructions, the Slonimer Rebbe finds, unsurprisingly, are spiritual. God begins with the easiest challenge and ends with the immensely difficult. As we fashion ourselves, and purify ourselves of the masks and falsehoods that we've inherited - as we come to a level of self-awareness that enables us to see that we are not, at some point in life, being who we are perhaps supposed to be, we begin a journey away from those forces that impinge upon us, those things that we feel falsely define us. When we do this, we find that it is easiest to loosen the grip of the broadest, or most distant influence: that of our land, our country, or culture. It is in fact an enormous achievement to break free of the conditions of one's culture [and, in fact, some would say it cannot be done - that it runs the deepest]. We may then find that we cannot find ourselves for the pervasive influence of the values and assumptions that are slightly closer to home. The extended family and social circles of our local community, with all of its powerful relationships, its egos, social pressures and expectations. At this level, the influence is personal - we can feel the social pressures bearing down When we are young we may be too weak to know whether those feelings of dislocation and resentment at such pressure emerge because of the falsity, arbitrariness, and superficiality of such pressure, or our own incapacity to push back against it for lack of spiritual imagination and courage. Many of us never escape the powerful hold that these social expectations have on us and we live our lives attempting to live in a house that is not our own. But the deepest and most profound hold is that exerted by our parents. This relationship does not have to be adversarial or troubled to create spiritual challenges. The challenge is existential - it cannot be avoided. To be sure, a painful relationship may aggravate the challenge of finding oneself within that relationship. But even when a child has been raised without a great deal of pain, the attempt to locate one's own vision of the world, to determine one's own gifts, and one's own purpose within the context of that cloud of parent-child relation can seem impossible. Can we know whether the self we find there is really our own? Everywhere we turn is a thought, a desire, a dream that belongs to those who brought us into the world. But there is a singular purpose, a unique soul, to be found within all of that. Our life's task is to find that, and to be honest about it - because the influences of our land, our birthplace and our parents might lead us to deny or run from that purpose! Abraham is not a young man when he hears God's call to leave behind everything he has known. It is deep, hard, work with no guarantee of success. The spiritual challenge lay not in escaping the particulars of our own experience to find some untouched core within. Any search for the soul within you that remains pure of all the complicated social and familial relations will come to nothing, because that soul doesn't exist. It is precisely those particular conditions of our own lives that give shape to our particular spiritual journey. Abraham will declare the unity of God and forego the idolatry of the middle east. And yet this was the person whose father, the mid rash tells us, was the chief idol maker for the King. The mid rash is not mentioning this fact of his father's occupation as an incidental fact. It is precisely because of this particular reality of Abraham's life that he discover's his unique role. The challenges of our own lives that so often seem to be the roadblock are, in fact, the path. Those conditions of your past and your present experience that seem to be holding you back are in fact the very challenges that you have to face to fulfill your particular purpose, the reason for which you were created. So, lech l'cha - often translated as "go" or "go forth" but literally "go to yourself" or "go into yourself" is precisely the point. We can't just walk away from the particular influences of our lives. We have to go through those conditions of our experience that shape - and even seem to limit - us if we are to walk the path of the deepest self discover and the fulfillment of the purpose with which the creator invested our lives.

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